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RISMEDIA, May 30, 2007-(MCT)-The sagging housing market makes for good television. Apparently it doesn’t matter that annual rate of home sales nationwide are down 10.7%: The real estate boom is alive and well on cable TV.

The networks have crafted entertainment out of fluffing up homes for sale, chronicling the travails of amateurs trying to flip houses for profit or tagging along with realty agents as they angle for a listing.

“Even with the slowing housing market, it doesn’t take away people’s interest,” said Frances Berwick, executive vice president of programming and production for Bravo, which has two titles in the works. “If anything, it makes people slightly more crazy about following it.”

And the real estate obsessed can choose from at least two dozen shows. From “Property Ladder” to “Flip This House” (not to be confused with “Flip That House”) to “National Open House,” the list is long and getting longer.

The latest is “Secrets that Sell,” which premiered this month. It is a spinoff of “Designed to Sell,” which premiered in 2004 and became so popular that Home & Garden Television has expanded it to five nights a week and signed on production crews in Chicago and Washington to supplement its Los Angeles base.

“Secrets that Sell” features a mother-daughter team of real estate agents who honed their TV personas by bluntly telling owners on “Designed to Sell” what they had to do to make their homes more attractive to buyers. In the spinoff, they troop through two houses per show, dealing out the same tough-love advice.

Real estate agents taking a star turn seem to be the subgenre of the moment, as the networks look for ways to wring more titles from the housing market.

In April, HGTV debuted “Bought & Sold,” a reality show that purports to capture the frustrations, meltdowns and triumphs of agents on their way to closing — and losing — deals.

“Bought & Sold” follows on the heels of “Million Dollar Listing,” a similar Bravo series that the cable channel aired last year and is retooling to bring back next year.

Agents are good fodder, said HGTV programming executive Melissa Sykes.

“In their line of work, they have to be expressive, good with people, engaging,” she said. “They make naturally great television.”

HGTV, the acknowledged leader, started out a dozen years ago with decorating and gardening how-to’s. It entered real estate in 1999 with “House Hunters,” and such programming accounts for six of its 10 top shows, according to Nielsen Media Research. The ratings service said HGTV averaged more than 1 million prime-time viewers in 2006.

While a good number for cable, it is minuscule by network TV standards. But extraordinarily high ratings aren’t necessarily the goal, because the real estate shows deliver a highly desirable, targeted viewer, said Ken Zasky, president of StarLink Worldwide, a Chicago advertising firm.

“Generally, these shows are really nice for advertisers for a couple of reasons,” Zasky said. “The programming is fresh, there’s something new each week, and it’s generally safe — there are no content issues for advertisers.

“The people who watch the shows are homeowners. They’re great for what we call endemic advertising, such as home-improvement products, doors, windows, etc. But they’re also great for a variety of lifestyle products. We place ads on the real estate shows for insurance companies, financial-services companies and autos.”

And the winding down of the housing boom makes no difference.

“As the market changes, as people become more concerned about their investment or their ability to attain their dream home, the more they want info,” Sykes said.

“The programs are somewhat marketproof,” agreed StarLink executive Miraj Parikh, who said the shows’ appeal swings both ways. When housing was flying, viewers watched to snoop on how many multiple offers the other guy got, he said.

“In a marketplace like we’re in right now, maybe it’s harder to sell your house,” he said. “The viewer is using these programs as a benchmark of whether the market is good again.”

But in real estate TV, as in real life, happy endings are no longer guaranteed.

Ralph and Nancy Baumel have learned both lessons. Extremely frustrated when, after nearly a year on the market, their Park Ridge home’s “for sale” sign seemed to be a permanent fixture, they wrote to HGTV’s “Designed to Sell.”

The show this month sent in a designer with $2,000 for materials and a construction crew to make over their living room and conduct an open house.

The couple like the changes but, unlike the outcome typically depicted on the nightly show, no buyer materialized. Still, the Baumels weren’t particularly surprised.

“They say on the show they have multiple offers, and they’re above the asking price” because of the makeover,” said Ralph Baumel. “I think that if this was an active market, maybe that would be possible. We were just doing it because we were asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to get a leg up on this horrible market?'”

Unhappy endings are more a staple of “flipping” shows, which typically spotlight entrepreneurs who get in over their heads trying to fix up homes for quick resale. And though industry analysts say most of the real flippers have gone away, TV flippers haven’t.

“The shows have gotten more realistic,” Parikh said. “Those shows where somebody says, ‘I am going to take two weeks’ vacation and flip this house,’ nobody does that any more.”

But TV has made it less personal, he said.

“In a lot of these flipping shows, they actually have a management company that’s doing the flipping, instead of an individual,” Parikh said.

“You’re not going to make shows that make people uncomfortable,” said Zasky. That is why, he said, if the market slumps further, shows that trumpet dazzling dollar values of homes, such as “My Home Is Worth What?” might not last.

But Sykes said the genre, as a whole, is a lock.

“These shows consistently perform,” she said. “The reason people find real estate so compelling is that it taps into two very essential components of people’s lives: their hearts and their wallets.”

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.